It’s the first truly hot day of May. Hours of sweating over coffee have paid off with a perfect night. Zarita and Zelda settle into their usual right-side spot wearing nothing but shorts and T’s. Zelda savors her first swallow from a cold, cold beer.
Zarita laughs. “You’re easy to please.”
“Been doin’ hot yoga all day.”
“How’s the bohemian quartet?”
“Maggie the slut has returned to the fold, just in time for their first shoot. I’m a little worried about Mae. Girlfriend looks worse every day, and her coughing is horrible.”
Zarita twitches her lips. “Hope she’s having that checked out.”
“Hard to say. You know these artists.”
One benefit of being a San Jose Giants fan is the near proximity of the parent club, which means regular appearances by re-habbing big leaguers. The latest is their third baseman, who steps in and unceremoniously launches the first pitch over the right field fence. The crowd rises and yells as the ball disappears into the parking lot.
“I guess Pablo’s hammie is feeling better!” says Zarita.
“Yeah,” says Zelda. She looks toward the left-side stands. “I notice Gigante hardly gets over here anymore.”
“I think ‘Gigante’ is a devotee of the bro code, and although it’s hardly his fault, he did sleep with the object of his wingman’s affections. Could be he’s feeling awkward. Any news on the whereabouts of the Phantom?”
“Well-trimmed but still missing. He better show up soon. Jackson’s gonna stroke out in this heat.”
The Z’s are returning from a beer run in the sixth when they find themselves directly behind Gigante, working a standard routine. Under the team mascot code, any major league hat not bearing the logo of the parent team is fair game for ridicule. Gigante reaches out to shake the kid’s hand and instead nabs his Cubs cap. He holds it aloft to show it to the rest of the section, giving a thumbs-down, holding his nose and then cupping his ear to get everyone to boo the Cubs.
The cap’s owner is looking amused but a little concerned. Gigante is about to make a return when he’s overcome by an enormous sneeze – directly into the cap. He uses it to wipe his nose, then his armpits, then his butt. By the time he hands it back, the kid isn’t sure he wants it anymore. Gigante gives him a pat to let him know it’s all in fun.
He turns to head downstairs and, finding Zelda in his path, goes into the stock routine: joyous surprise, a finger to the cheek and then, once he receives the kiss, a lovestruck stumble down the steps.
Zarita watches him go. “What was…? You don’t think…?”
“I’m sure they share routines all the time.”
An inning later, Zarita nudges Zelda’s arm and points to the dugout. The PA is playing “Blurred Lines,” and Gigante is dancing in a distinctly Edwardian style.
The bohemian quartet is back down to a trio. Rudy the screenwriter is a wreck. Zelda almost hates to ask.
Rudy takes a thoughtful blink. His blue eyes are rimmed with red.
“We… broke up.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
“She’s convinced herself that she’s going to die, and she doesn’t want to take me down with her. I already feel like death right now, so what’s the fuckin’ difference?”
Like bartenders, baristas occasionally turn into confessors. It’s a hazard of the job.
“Do they have any idea…”
“Lupus,” says Rudy. “It’s very unpredictable. But it’s also treatable. Mae worries too much about other people’s feelings. She needs to let me be as tough as she is.”
He looks at the menu board, perhaps a little embarrassed at talking too much.
“I’d like a small Parisienne.”
“You got it.”
He hands her the money. “Thanks. Been a long day.”
“You’re welcome. I hope she comes back.”
More illicit information, she thinks. She looks at Edward’s corner – still empty – and pulls out the French roast.
She’s surprised when Jackson shows up at the end of her shift. He orders his Istanbul not Constantinople and waits on a bench that forms a square around a laurel tree. Zelda makes herself a General Washington (cherries, honey, Colombian roast) and joins him.
“Mmm… Sometimes I forget just how good our product is.”
“That’s why I come here,” he says. “Well, that and the hot baristas.”
“I was thinking you were avoiding me.”
“Just when Edward’s around. That was nice of you to get him the haircut. I think that’s why he finally came back to the job.”
“If not the coffeehouse.”
“Yeah. Apparently he can’t talk to you unless he’s in costume.”
“I’m so freakin’ intimidating.”
Jackson straddles the bench. “I can’t give you the details, but Edward is deathly afraid of good things in his life.”
“Look, Jackson. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m interested. Your friend is a fucking train wreck.”
“Then why the haircut?”
“Because I care. And I’m nice.”
Jackson slaps a drumroll on the bench. “I… really wouldn’t expect anyone to be interested, that way, with Edward. And he sorta makes a point of looking as unattractive as possible. But. I would do anything for that guy.”
Zelda straddles the bench, too, but in her own style. She straightens her right leg, lifts it in an arc above Jackson’s head and puts it back down.
Jackson laughs. “That alone would send Edward screaming to the hills.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to show off.”
“Yes you did.”
“A little. But why exactly would you do anything for that guy?”
Jackson taps a finger on his nose. “Okay. That’s fair game. In high school, my parents decided to keep their marriage together by yelling at each other on a nightly basis. A couple of times, the cops showed up.”
“My only escape was to hop the back fence and knock on Edward’s window. We would go to his garage and play CDs real loud so I couldn’t hear my parents. And you know the way Edward dances?”
“That used to be his personality as well. If you were down, he wasn’t happy until he could shake a smile out of you. Unlike many people in high school, he actually gave a fuck. My parents eventually got a divorce, and I was greatly relieved. But until then, my sanctuary was Edward.”
Jackson takes a sip and looks out toward the parking lot, shading his eyes. Zelda runs a hand over the bench, the grain ridged and cracked.
“Jackson? Could you make up some reason to take Edward to Boswell’s and get him drunk?”
“Our communications are pretty sketchy. What about tomorrow night?”
“There by nine? Drunk by eleven?”
“Just don’t pull any of those stripper moves. His head might explode.”
Zelda leans back and laughs.
The band that night is Cougar Unleashed, an all-black five-piece that barely fits on the stage. The singer, Rhonda, produces a smokey-whiskey sound somewhere between Billie Holliday and Etta James. Their playlist is a mother lode of infectious rhythm, thanks in large part to their bassist, a big dude with a bit of swag.
Zelda is dressed in dance clothes, stretchy jeans and a tangerine top that falls over her butt so as not to alarm her prey. She heads for the usual table, where Jackson stands with four amigos – none of them Edward. Jackson points toward the dance floor, where Edward is working out to “What is Hip?”
“Excellent,” she says. “Now. What I need next is a decoy. Got any decent dancers among your retinue?”
“Lucas is good”
“Oh sure!” says Lucas. “Pick the black guy.”
“Well? Are you good?”
“Well then shut up and dance with me. Oh and, no offense, but let’s keep a little distance out there.”
“Why, because I’m black?” Lucas cracks himself up. “I’m sorry, I gotta stop doing that. Yeah, I got the word. Eddie’s got the hots for you.”
She leads Lucas to the left-hand side of the floor, far away from Edward. She sticks to the microscopic shimmies she uses for conservative wedding receptions. Lucas is content to stay in one place and look smooth, applying little swoops and murmurs with his hips and hands.
The programming couldn’t be better. The band breaks into “Hard to Handle,” which is eminently danceable. Edward’s getting lost in it, arms weaving in front of him. He sinks toward the floor then straightens up, kicks out a leg and pulls a crossover Michael Jackson spin. Zelda backs her way in his direction, using the crowd (an active dozen couples) as cover. Lucas follows along, but keeps his distance.
After the guitar solo, she blows Lucas a kiss, pivots around and is side by side with Edward, although he’s too involved to know it. The song ends, everyone applauds and Edward finds himself two feet away from Zelda.
For a moment, he looks like he’s going to run, but the bassist starts up a sinewy line, followed by the drummer on a bossa nova rim-click, and Rhonda sings “Use Me Up” by Bill Withers. Zelda holds out her right hand and twists it back and forth. She sends it toward Edward, and he can’t resist. She lets her hips join in, and so does he. Now she waves the wrist-flip wider, and mirrors it with her left hand, a move that feels somehow Caribbean. Edward takes the move higher, lifting his arms over his head, then crosses his hands behind his neck and brings them back like a small, flapping bird. Zelda follows.
This give-and-take lasts the length of the song. By the end, all appendages are engaged and Zelda and Edward are riffing, balancing their attack on a smooth back-and-forth shuffle. This is jazz improv, she thinks. Bebop. She has found Edward’s language.
She wonders if she is pushing her luck, but then the band heads into “Hey Ya” by Outkast and all bets are off. Edwards starts this one, shifting his right knee to the outside in a mid-air, a kind of Bollywood maneuver. He claps his hands together and pushes them side-to-side in front of his chest. Zelda follows, and allows herself a smile. Edward maintains a look of deadly seriousness.
Three songs later, the band takes a break, and Zelda decides it’s time. She ventures to touch Edward on the elbow.
“Thanks, Edward. I have to get up early, so…”
She heads for the door and hears his words: “Good night.” By his standards, it’s a soliloquy. Zelda waves to Jackson, who gives her a thumbs-up, and heads outside, feeling pleasantly sweaty.
Photo by Sonia Cuellar